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Opinion: Where there are “no people”, there is fire!

Fatal abandon home fire, 4500 blk of Stockton Blvd, Dec. 5, 2013
Fatal abandon home fire, 4500 blk of Stockton Blvd, Dec. 5, 2013

“I’ve got a potential big story for ya… it’s a homeless impact situation that the city has no way of acquiring the fiscal impact data which is potentially a significant percentage of the city budget…. it’s public safety and city budget…It’s a mystery how occupied houses catch fire all by themselves…no electricity of gas either to spark them off.”
——Tip on under-/unreported fires from a local source

Houses catch on fire all the time. It is the main reason that municipalities maintain fire departments. Not startling news to anyone. Things happen: a stove gets left on and food catches on fire, an electrical outlet overheats or has frayed wiring, etc. However, how do you explain such fires when the house is in foreclosure or the last tenant has moved out and the utilities are shut off? An arsonist? Yes, a possible explanation, but investigators are trained to detect this and have ways of seeing patterns in the activity. Investigations are launched by law enforcement.

Sacramento is facing a more complex reason for a series of fires of suspicious origins across the entire city. It is a reason that is not codible, classifiable in reports. It is a reason that is politically and socially uncomfortable for many people. It is also a problem because of the cost in lost manpower time for the Sacramento Fire Department and tax dollars paid by city residents, not to mention the unnecessary danger local firefighters are exposed to on a daily basis.

With the economic downturn a few years ago, the number of unoccupied, foreclosed houses in Sacramento skyrocketed as did the numbers of homeless individuals. Anecdotal evidence began to appear that the empty houses were often becoming the location of mysterious fires. Also it became common knowledge among firefighters that the same locations often caught on fire multiple times. Since current coding for the suspected causes of fires in the Sac FD operations manual doesn’t include one for fires at vacant properties allegedly started by homeless individuals, there is no way for department officials nor for the City Manager who is in theory in charge of oversight of the Fire Department on behalf of the City Council to see the extent of the problem. Anecdotal evidence has never apparently made it up the chain of command. This is confirmed by the fact that the Sacramento Fire Department could not supply numbers on the amount of such fires when asked for them in the preparation of this article.

A partial list of such fires since the beginning of November 2013 gleaned from various unofficial sources include: an empty structure at the corner of Carbide Ct and Wilbur Way on November 2nd from which five people were saved; an empty home at 3346 44th Street which caught fire on November 21st and again on November 23rd, a house fire at 2768 Grove on November 23rd, a fire at 4517 El Camino on November 25th, and a house in the 4500 block of Stockton Blvd on December 5th in which one person unhappily died and three others injured. Reports of these type can also be traced back a number of years though with a lesser frequency.

Each of these fires required that responding units work under the assumption that there were individuals in the structures and check each for potential victims. Not an easy task when the building is burning. Also after making sure there were no people in these structures and putting out the fire, department personnel had stay on scene to make sure that the fires did not restart from any remaining hot ashes. This meant that these units were not available for extended periods to assist with other calls for assistance at structures where people actually lived.

The fires connected to homeless and transient individuals entering unoccupied homes, especially during winter months, may not be the most appealing of stories to talk about for any number of reasons, most specifically because of the accused lack of political correctness in talking about the homeless in less than noble terms, it is a problem which those in charge of city government must get a grasp on because of the potential damage that these fires can do if they spread to nearby occupied residences. This is a serious threat in areas of the city where houses were built in close proximity to each other in past years. It is also an issue which must be discussed because of the cost to the city in tax dollars (again a figure which currently can’t be calculated but has been shown in some cities to be as much as a quarter of the local municipality’s budget for their fire departments) and in the increased and unnecessary risk to the firefighters who must deal with these fires of suspicious origin on a daily basis.

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